Words by Sophie McMahon

Leading fast fashion brands are profiting from greenwashing their image, as consumers push for sustainability in 2021.

For those of us looking to refill our wardrobes after a year of virtual learning in our loungewear, high-street retailers are the obvious choice. From brands like ASOS, H&M and Zara, you can pick up basic items for as little as £5, which is well within a student budget. Clever marketing means these fast fashion brands are boasting that they have it all: fashionable pieces, affordability, and eco-friendly lines. For a consumer worried about the looming climate crisis, this would seem like a dream come true. These brands know that sustainability sells, as Garnier’s One Green Step Report claims that 73% of UK consumers are looking for it in 2021. Proving their green credentials is essential to making us feel good about our purchasing power, and therefore to buy our support. Scarily, it’s working.

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, and today refers to organisations who mislead customers through unsubstantiated claims that make them, and their products, seem environmentally friendly. I must admit, it’s a practice that has had me fooled. Which isn’t surprising since recent findings published by The Big Issue showed that 60% of fashion brands are deceptive about their eco-friendly products.

With the release of so many ‘green’ lines by the nation’s favourite retailers, are we being told the full truth? Or are we being greenwashed?

Impact of fast fashion brands

Constant media bombardment with new fashion trends might make you consider buying new clothes this Freshers Week. It’s understandable, I did it. But before you hit the high streets in search of that perfect outfit, let me give you some perspective on the impact that you and I are having on our planet. The one we are told we have 12 years to save.

Our consumption of clothes in the last two decades has skyrocketed. Whilst today we are exposed to new fashion trends every two weeks, our parents in the 1980s/90s might remember them being twice a year. As we demand more from these companies, their output has increased to the point where they are annually producing 100 billion garments (Fashionopolis). Out of this, 20 billion are destroyed before they even make it to stores; the direct impact of economies of scale, where companies benefit from lower prices if they overproduce garments.

Manufacturing polyester produces harmful substances like carbon dioxide and ammonia. Once made, they shed up to 700,000 microplastics every wash according to a documentary by Planet A. Buying cotton seems like the greener alternative, until you read that most crops have been treated with chemicals so that they yield six times more product when harvested. This modified crop requires significantly greater amounts of water, using 3,700 litres to make a single pair of jeans, as per figures released by the U.N. Environment Programme.

Let’s also not forget the social impact of fast fashion brands, which force labourers to work long hours for little pay in factories with few safety regulations. The myriad of poor conditions was highlighted most significantly in 2013 when the Rana Plaza factory, who manufacture clothes for H&M, collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,138 people.

In 2020 when COVID-19 hit the world, huge brands like Nike, Urban Outfitters and Levi’s cancelled orders that had been placed before the pandemic hit. In total, Clean Clothes Campaign reported that fashion retailers refused to pay $16 billion in goods that had already been produced and in some cases, shipped out. Collective action was taken when Remake, a non-profit organisation, created a hashtag: #payup. Since it’s advent, the hashtag and corresponding petition has garnered support of over 200,000 people and 19 companies have now paid what they owed.


Even after hearing these statistics and becoming more conscious about my consumption,

I was still misled by brands pushing their green image. In environmental terms, being sustainable is defined as ‘causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time’. Like many, I never thought about the fact that the business models of fast fashion brands will always be unsustainable. They produce clothes at such an alarming rate that, according to writer Tabitha Whiting, it would take some brands 12 years to recycle what they produce in a single day.

H&M is a prime example of such a brand that has attempted to greenwash their image, despite unethically overproducing garments. In 2019, they released a ‘Conscious Collection’ which was marketed as a line made from materials like organic cotton and recycled polyester, which are supposed to be more sustainable. Despite these claims, The Big Issue published that this line contained ‘a higher share of damaging synthetic materials than its main line (72 per cent compared to 61 per cent)’. It has also received condemnation from Norway’s Consumer Authority:

“H&M are not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell.” -Bente Øverli, Deputy Director of Norway’s Consumer Authority.

I must admit, they had me fooled. Purchasing an item from this collection made me feel good about my purchasing power. With the label saying my dress was made from recycled plastic bottles, I felt as if I was helping the planet and being more mindful of where my wardrobe came from. They place the responsibility on the consumer to make the choice to buy from these lines, yet they are the ones creating the problem that they then claim to be the saviours of.

Although H&M are undoubtedly greenwashing their brand, they are not the only ones to do this. While these corporations should be held accountable for their contributions to pollution, it is still important that we, as individuals, do our bit. It is hard to recommend a way to spot greenwashing, but if you take one thing away from this article, I hope it is that no matter what ‘eco-conscious’ line a fast fashion brand throws your way, it is only to cover a multitude of environmental sins. Instead, you may consider taking advantage of the wide variety of charity or vintage shops that Brighton has to offer, or even joining Sussex’s Second-Hand Society which will help you get some new guilt-free garments during their swaps.  

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